- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Boston’s Logan International Airport yesterday began a test to screen cargo on passenger planes electronically in a bid to seal what many regard as a critical vulnerability in the nation’s aviation security.

The initial 30-day stage of the pilot project will use a self-contained mobile X-ray machine to screen cargo trucks, said Jose Juves, spokesman for the Massachusetts Transport Authority (Massport), which runs Logan Airport.

Logan Airport was the staging point for two of the planes hijacked in the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The equipment and its three-member crew will be provided free by the manufacturers, L-3 Security and Detection Systems, based in Woburn, Mass., Mr. Juves said. At the end of the 30 days, the pilot project will switch to test other types of screening equipment, like the kinds of explosive detection systems now used to screen checked passenger baggage.

“This is an open-ended test program,” Mr. Juves said. “We were the first to institute 100 percent in-line baggage screening, so this was a natural next step for us.”

Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, announced the pilot project at a news conference earlier this month, accusing the Transportation Security Administration of stalling on the issue of air cargo, which is carried on passenger planes but not screened like luggage. He accused the agency of leaving the door open for “bombs without boarding passes.”

TSA officials yesterday welcomed the Logan pilot project.

“Massport has always worked to be on the cutting edge of security technology,” said spokeswoman Ann Davis.

The TSA has said that it is moving as quickly as practical to bring cargo screening on line, without destroying the air cargo business, which depends on flights for “just-in-time delivery.”

The TSA has $55 million to spend on researching new equipment to screen air cargo, Miss Davis said.

“Screening air cargo is not an easy business,” said security consultant Bill Sewell, who has worked with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the two states’ major airports.

“X-ray machines are quite limited in what they can see,” he says, pointing out that they produce only a two-dimensional picture. “It basically shows you a lot of black and grayish-looking images.”

When it comes to spotting bombs or other dangerous items, “a great deal depends on how well-trained the operators are,” he said.

The TSA says it wants to run its own pilot program for electronic cargo screening using explosive detection systems, but has yet to set a timetable.

“We are still seeking to identify [airports] where we can test the machinery we want to use,” Miss Davis said, adding that these probably would be smaller airports where cargo handling is close by.

Mr. Markey has accused the Bush administration of shortchanging aviation security in favor of tax cuts and the Iraq war. Other critics have suggested that frugality is at the root of the TSA’s reluctance to embark on a crash screening program.

But TSA officials say that while screening is ultimately desirable, it is not immediately necessary. The “known-shipper” program — under which only registered firms are allowed to put cargo on passenger planes — and other measures such as the use of canine inspection teams provide security, they say.

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